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Malaysia Airlines Update: The World Looks to James Bond

Posted by Patrick Smith  March 17, 2014 12:54 PM

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UPDATE: March 17, 2014.

HIJACKING, investigators now say. I'll have more to say later, but for now a couple of points and a few clarifications...

First, remember that the long, long history of air piracy did not begin and end with September 11th, 2001, so it's important not to view every hijacking through the crucible of the 9/11 template. People hijack planes for different reason. It may even have been a rogue crewmember.

If indeed this was a hijacking, did the plane land somewhere, as some are suggesting, possibly to be used later as an airborne weapon of some kind, perhaps loaded with a nuclear or biological weapon? I seriously doubt it. I suspect, instead, the plane crashed into the ocean, and will be found there eventually. Remote as some airports are, none are small or unwatched enough to accept a Boeing 777 without it being obvious. And I can't imagine a terrorist cabal incompetent enough to attempt to steal a commercial jetliner full of people, drawing the entire world's attention to their plans. There are hundreds if not thousands of business jets and cargo planes out there, traveling the world more or less anonymously, that would be equally suited to such a scheme.

And some clarity, please, on the topic of transponders. The media is throwing this term around without a full understanding of how the equipment works. For position reporting and traffic sequencing purposes, transponders only work in areas of typical ATC radar coverage. Most of the world, including the oceans, does not have ATC radar coverage. Transponders are relevant to this story only when the missing plane was close to land. Once over the ocean, it didn't matter anyway. Over oceans and non-radar areas, other means are used for position reports and tracking/communicating (satcomm, datalink, etc.), not transponders.

Many readers have asked why the capability exists to switch off a transponder, as apparently happened aboard Malaysia flight 370. In fact very few of a plane’s components are hot-wired to be, as you might say, “always on.” In the interest of safety — namely, fire and electrical system protection — it’s important to have the ability to isolate a piece of equipment, either by a standard switch or, if need be, through a circuit breaker. Also transponders will occasionally malfunction and transmit erroneous or incomplete data, at which point a crew will recycle the device — switching it off, then on — or swap to another unit. Typically at least two transponders are onboard, and you can’t run both simultaneously. Bear in mind too that switching the unit “off” might refer to only one of the various subfunctions, or “modes” — for example, mode C, mode S — responsible for different data.

Similarly, some have wondered why, to the best of anybody's knowledge, no passengers placed cell phone calls to loved ones, as occurred during the 9/11 attacks. Does the absence of call records suggest the passengers had been incapacitated somehow, or that the plane had met a very sudden end? No. Unless an aircraft is flying very low and within range of a cell tower, cellular calling from a plane does not work. Your phone will not pick up a signal. Some airplanes, however, are equipped with special technology that permits calling via satellite or using VHF frequencies to transmit cellular calls. I'm uncertain if Malaysia's 777s have this technology, but even if they do it could have been intentionally turned off, similar to how inflight Wi-Fi, a transponder, and other communications equipment can be switched off.

As for some of the wackier ideas I've been hearing, my favorite is the one that goes like this: Would it be possible for the 777 to have climbed clear out of the atmosphere, so high that "it disintegrated," went into orbit, or otherwise became impossible to track or locate? In normal circumstances I wouldn't burden the rest of you with an answer to such nonsense, except that no fewer than five readers already have asked some version of this question. The answer is no. It is totally impossible for that to happen. At a certain altitude, a plane's engines will no longer provide enough power and the wings will no longer provide enough lift. The plane will no longer be able to sustain flight. All commercial passenger jets have maximum certified cruising altitudes below 50,000 feet or so. And even this altitude isn't always reachable. The maximum altitude at a given time depends on the plane's weight, the air temperature and other factors.


 

FOR MORE, SEE THE EARLIER POST BELOW

 

THIS STORY APPEARED ORIGINALLY AT WWW.ASKTHEPILOT.COM


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About the author

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot, air travel columnist, author, and host of www.askthepilot.com. In his spare time, he has visited more than 80 countries and always asks for a window seat. He lives in Somerville. More »

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